Headphones and Personal Audio at CES 2011, Part 2

Earphones and in-ear monitors,
Headphone amps and amp/DACs
Etymotic ER-4P,
Etymotic MC5,
Focal XS Book,
High Resolution Technologies iStreamer
Headphones and Personal Audio at CES 2011, Part 2

This is part 2 of Chris Martens' 4-part CES personal audio coverage.
Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 3.
Click here to read part 4.

Etymotic Research

Etymotic is now shipping its MC5 in-ear headphone ($79), which uses a moving coil-type driver rather than the balanced armature-type drivers used in Etymotic’s flagship ER4-series earphones or in mid-line hf-Series ‘phones. Be this as it may, the little MC5 does a downright amazing job of channeling the clear, open sound that has made its upscale siblings famous.


The French speaker maker debuted a new self-powered, high-performance computer speaker called the XS Book ($399/pair), with each speaker sporting a ¾” tweeter plus a 4” woofer in a beautifully-made ducted port enclosure. The XS Books are powered built-in 2 x 20 Wpc amplifiers, and are set up with two stereo analog audio inputs: via a 3.5mm mini-jack and a pair of RCA jacks. The XS Book offers traditionally high levels of Focal fit and finish with simple but exquisite styling, and should appeal to listeners who find the firm’s 2.1-channel XS computer speaker system too complicated and/or too expensive.

Next, Focal showed CES attendees a product family that had debuted (in the U.S.) at CEDIA 2010; namely, the impressive Bird system. Bird is an affordable, prepackaged high-end audio system that is designed to sound good while minimizing complexity and clutter. To this end, the heart of the Bird system is what at first appears to be an electronics component, called the PowerBird, which in fact combines the functions of an amp, a DAC, a wireless iPod dock (available with either a Kleer, USB, or Airport Express-compatible dongle), and—take note—a subwoofer! To complete the system, one adds only satellite speakers, of which Focal offers three: the Little Bird, the Bird, and the SuperBird (no, it doesn’t resemble legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty’s famous winged Plymouth Superbird in the slightest). The system sounds terrific, and is very well priced: $899 for the complete Little Bird system, $999 for the Bird version, and $1199 for the SuperBird package. Wireless dongles add an extra $100 to the system price.


Hot on the heels of its top-tier HE-6 planar magnetic headphone, HiFiMAN has created a very impressive and somewhat less costly new model called the HE-6p ($900), which is essentially a much higher efficiency version of the HE-6 that can—check this out—be driven by portable headphone amps (something that would never be possible with the low-sensitivity HE-6). I listened briefly to the HE-6p and would say it offered the best sound I heard at CES on Day 1—a sound that preserves all of the richness and much (though not quite all) of the transparency of the top-tier HE-6. For many listeners, though, I suspect the HE-6p will become the model of choice, partly because it is a hair more “forgiving” than the über-revealing HE-6 and partly because it is so much easier to drive.

As an important note in passing, we should mention that Fang Bain, head of HiFiMAN and Head-Direct, should now properly be addressed as Dr. Fang Bian, as he has recently completed work on his PhD in nano-chemistry. Congratulations, Dr. Bian!

High Resolution Technologies

High Resolution Technologies (HRT) was proudly displaying its new iStreamer iPod DAC ($199.95), which derive much of its goodness from design DNA drawn from the firm’s critically-acclaimed MusicStreamer family of affordable yet very high-performance USB DACs. But another key element that makes the iStreamer “click” is the fact that—unlike most other docking products for iPod, it offers what HRT terms a “jitter free” Host Mode interface with the iPod. About a week from now, Playback will publish a full review of this impressive little DAC.

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